Recently, Richard Hooper, a former Lutheran pastor and the author of "The Crucifixion of Mary Magdalene" and "The Gospel of the Unknown Jesus," posted a piece on the Religion and Spirituality Forum entitled "Hide and seek with the historical Jesus" in which he makes an argument for the historicity of Jesus. In reviewing this argument, I am once again reminded why I left the Lutheran Church. Pastor Hooper says:
Virtually all early Christian literature, and the movement that stood behind it, was of Greek, not Hebraic origin. Jesus' actual followers, all of whom were Jews, did not write a single word of the New Testament.
The New Testament was written entirely by Hellenistic Christians who rejected the Judaizing tendencies of the early (Jewish) Jesus movement. Even so, these non-Jewish Messianists (who were uniformly hostile toward Jews) did not make some Greek or Roman hero figure their Messiah and Son of God. Instead, their faith was built around Yeshua (Jesus), a Palestinian Jew. So we might say that while the Gospels contain a great deal of mythology and outright fiction about Jesus, they are also "based on a true story."
Smith states, "From a historical perspective it is not very easy to defend the thesis that a first-century Hellenizing movement invented and deified a fictional Jewish hero, since totally fictional heroes tend to display traits admired by those who imagined him (or her)." Many stories about Jesus are quite scandalous, and the Hellenists would hardly have invented these. And the greatest scandal of all was the fact that the Christian Messiah was crucified as a common criminal.
This Palestinian Jew from an obscure village called Nazareth in Galilee was, in many ways, an embarrassment to early Christians. Yeshua (Jesus) challenged the accepted standards of social purity, questioned established authority, and overturned the traditions and mores of conventional family life. The Jesus of the Gospels was a serious troublemaker.
All of these factors made it necessary for Christians to reinterpret Jesus' life and teachings in order to make him conform to their Hellenistic mystery religion. They would not have had to do this if Jesus had been a fictional character.
Now, this is kind of an interesting argument. He is basically saying that given that the earliest Christians held to Hellenistic philosophy, it makes no sense that they would cling to Jesus as the one who rose from the dead to cleanse us from our unrighteousness if Jesus hadn't been a real person. After all, if the point was that any "deity" could have been the redeemer of the world, why not pick Zeus or Apollo or even Hermes? The fact that they felt constrained to argue that this Jewish man was God argues that there must be a real person behind the legends found in the Bible. While I appreciate Pastor Hooper putting in his arguments as to why Jesus had to be a historical figure (thus, countering the Jesus-Myth claims of such notables as Brian Flemming), I don't see how this type of help is particularly helpful. It seems to me that it is ultimately . . . well, self-defeating.
Let's look at the bathwater he is throwing out with this argument:
1. "Virtually all early Christian literature, and the movement that stood behind it, was of Greek, not Hebraic origin." In believing this rot, Pastor Hooper is essentially saying that the ideas behind Christianity originated in Greek thought -- not Jesus. Now, the idea that Christianity is entirely of Greek origin would surprise many like the Apostle Paul who called Christianity "foolishness to the Greeks," but then, I guess Paul didn't write those words either, in Pastor Hooper's eyes because . . .
2. "Jesus' actual followers, all of whom were Jews, did not write a single word of the New Testament." First, I think he means the people who walked with Jesus during his earthly life because everyone who writes something about Jesus who is a Christian is a follower of Jesus. Hence, Paul, even though he didn't follow him during his earthly life, was definitely a follower of Jesus and most scholars believe it to be beyond dispute that Paul actually wrote several of the books attributed to him.
But I think it's clear that the followers of Jesus did have, at minimum, a hand in the writing of the four Gospels. Personally, I think that the evidence is sufficient to reasonably conclude that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John and 1 and 2 John, that John Mark wrote the Apostle Peter's preaching in the Gospel of Mark, that Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke after talking to others about Jesus (including Mary, mother of Jesus), that the Apostle Peter wrote 1 Peter, and that James wrote the Epistle of James. But even if they didn't directly write these books, it is extremely likely that the books were at least written by the "schools" that surrounded these Apostles. So, consequently, I think that his statement that the "followers of Jesus" didn't write a word of the New Testament is wrong, or, at minimum, grossly overstated.
However, the consequence of Pastor Hooper's views is immediately obvious to the skeptic -- if the "followers of Jesus" didn't write any of this material, then it is written by people who didn't really know him and can be entirely made up. Since the Christian claim is that Jesus really lived, died and was resurrected, the fact that they accounts of these events can be claimed to be fabricated because not written by eyewitnesses or their immediate followers doesn't help the Christian claim. But that doesn't bother Pastor Hooper, who says . . .
3. "The New Testament was written entirely by Hellenistic Christians who rejected the Judaizing tendencies of the early (Jewish) Jesus movement." I guess I'm just curious -- who were these Hellenistic Christians? What evidence does Pastor Hooper have as to the identities of these Hellenistic Christians? Where did they live? When did they live? What can he really tell us about them? The answer appears to be: not much. This claim is based upon an extrapolation from the style of writing and not based on any real historical evidence because (as far as I have seen) there are no claims in ancient histories that the identities of the authors of the New Testament were Hellenistic Christians. Certainly, there were debates as to whether the new Christians should keep the same customs as the Jews kept, and that debate was won in favor of the views held by those who thought many of the Jewish customs and laws and been done away with. But that is not the same as saying that the New Testament was written by Hellenistic Christians.
4. "Even so, these non-Jewish Messianists (who were uniformly hostile toward Jews) . . . ." Sorry, I don't agree that the New Testament is hostile toward Jews.
5. "So we might say that while the Gospels contain a great deal of mythology and outright fiction about Jesus, they are also 'based on a true story.'" Well, I disagree in the strongest possible terms, and while I know Pastor Hooper's point is not to make his case for every statement he makes, the only outright fiction I see is in his claims. Yes, I know there are "Christian scholars" who believe this, but I have never seen anything that makes such a viewpoint compelling or even more likely that the conservative thesis that I have already stated in response to number 2, above.
Still, from an apologetics point of view, he has once again thrown out the bathwater and the baby follows. After all, if the Gospels contain a great deal of mythology and outright fiction, on what basis are we to believe any of it? Okay, so there was actually a person named Jesus upon whom the Gospel accounts are based, but if we can't know much more than that about him, why believe he was the person the New Testament says he is or that he said or did any of the things attributed to him? To me, this approach gives carte blanche to reject any and everything that Jesus actually said or did simply to try to win the point that Jesus -- the man -- actually existed.
6. "All of these factors made it necessary for Christians to reinterpret Jesus' life and teachings in order to make him conform to their Hellenistic mystery religion." Of course, the biggest problem with this is, as the late-great Dr. Ronald Nash showed in his book Jesus and the Greeks, the mystery religions almost certainly didn't arise until after Christianity, and if there was any borrowing between the two (which is doubtful) it was almost certainly the fact that the mystery religions borrowed from Christianity.
Dr. Hooper, I want to thank you for your effort to counter the Jesus-Mythers. But with all due respect, I think that your underlying beliefs make your efforts fruitless because even if someone agrees with your argument, all that they would find is that Jesus the man existed and that there is nothing more we can know about him. It's like getting people to believe that people have seen something they think is Bigfoot -- just because they think that they've seen it doesn't mean that they really saw it or that Bigfoot actually exists. By your "apologetic," even if Jesus really existed, that doesn't mean anything more than there was a real man about whom a lot of fiction has been written. It has no impact on the lives of those who agree with your argument and certainly doesn't lead them any closer to the Living Water.